Thousands choose army after abolition of poppy cultivation

Almost every young man in the Sherzad district of eastern Nangarhar province wants to join the fledging Afghan National Army (ANA) as an alternative means of employment following a ban on poppy cultivation in one of the country's largest poppy-growing provinces.

"The army is the pride of a country and [if you join] you will see the country. The salary and food I heard are excellent," Gulab Shah, an ex-poppy grower and now new recruit, told his friends who also sought alternative employment after the ban on poppy cultivation came into effect. "Poppy was rich materially but poor morally," he maintained.

Tens of thousands of ex-poppy growers are choosing to join the ANA after the ban on poppy cultivation and a serious eradication campaign began in the country's eastern and southern provinces.

"More than 8,000 eligible people in Nangarhar alone are on the standby list of the ANA recruitment centre after a 98 percent reduction in poppy cultivation in this province," Haji Din Mohammad, the governor of Nangarhar, told IRIN in the provincial city of Jalalabad.

Din Mohammad said hundreds of thousands of people had become jobless after stopping poppy cultivation or when their poppy fields were destroyed over the last two months. The governor said he was now under pressure from community elders to help thousands of young men join the US-supported and trained new Afghan army.

"This is very promising. From a negative business, people have voluntarily chosen to turn to the most positive [the ANA]," the governor said. "For example, Shinwaris [residents of a region in the east] didn't join the army even when it was compulsory in the past, but now they voluntarily want to serve in the ANA," he noted enthusiastically.

Meanwhile, authorities in the Afghan Ministry of Defence (MOD) confirmed to IRIN that an increasing number of people were coming to the ANA and the Afghan National Police (ANP) recruitment centres after this year's anti-narcotics campaigns and the disarmament of tens of thousands of militia forces.

"We have 20,000 people on standby in 34 ANA recruitment centres despite recruiting 3,000 every month," General Mohammad Ibrahim Ahmadzai, the chief of staff in the ANA recruitment command, told IRIN.

In addition to poppy growers, most of the demobilised ex-combatants had also chosen to join the ANA, he noted.

But Ahmadzai said the massive turnout was a serious challenge to the ANA recruitment centres. "We can only recruit 100 applicants from one province every month. Yes it is a voluntary process but we have to consider the ethnic balance," he maintained.

Attempts to increase the number of soldiers in the fledgling force have been hampered by a lack of suitable recruits and poor pay and conditions. But Ahmadzai said there was now more enthusiasm to join up, as ANA recruits currently enjoyed better pay and privileges than Afghan civil servants.

"Every ANA soldier is paid 3,500 Afs [US $70 per month] and the salary is doubled on missions outside duty stations," he said, adding they also received very good food and logistical support.

According to Ahmadzai, who also coordinates the national police force recruitment, so far 24,000 people had been recruited in the ANA since its creation in 2002 and 28,000 people in the ANP. The country would have a well-trained 70,000-strong army and 50,000-strong police force by 2006, he asserted.

Outside observers have long maintained that Afghanistan desperately needs a well-trained and well-led army to promote law and order, provide security and take on private militia groups run by powerful regional warlords.